A patent filed earlier this week by Microsoft would allow for actual bumps, lumps, and textures to be applied to touch screens.
The patent calls for the texture-enabled touchscreen to be coated with a special shape-memory polymer, which stiffens and sticks out when a certain wave-length of ultraviolet light hit it. This can be done to individual pixels, so that images displayed on the screen have a realistic tactile component. This could be used to emulate keyboards, give more depth to maps or virtual landscapes, and provide a more immersive experience to touch-based games. Imagine playing Cut the Rope and actually feeling the rope being cut as your finger runs over it.
The named inventor, Erez Kikin-Gil, says that as of now, the technology is directed mostly at large touch displays like the Microsoft Surface, as opposed to tablets or phones. Patrick Baudisch, a display interaction expert at the University of Potsdam in Germany who worked on the Surface, says that the tech might well be "... the holy grail of text entry on touch devices because it would enable touch typing at much faster speeds than on touchscreens today."
Though for now only aimed at the Surface, introducing the technology to mobile devices could be a game-changer for the cell-phone and tablet market. "There would be no more reason for mobile keypads," said Baudisch. "They would simply be emulated when necessary. That could effect massive change in this field."
Previous attempts at tactile screens utilized vibrotactile displays, which used different voltages to trick our fingers into feeling different textures. However, the displays could be noisy, and the flaws in the existing tech provoked Microsoft into searching out alternative solutions.
While it is unknown how exactly Microsoft will utilize the new technology or if the tech is even economically feasible, I wait with baited breath for the day I can feel the mountains and valleys as I move my RISK armies around the simulated board.